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Reflections on Teaching and Learning

Noticing and Naming

Disclaimer: This post represents my views and not those of my employer. If you’ve read my blog posts before, you’ll notice that this is not my usual tone. However, I’ve been letting many thoughts accumulate in my head over the past few months and this rant was born out of those bottled up reflections. Posting in hopes of engaging in a constructive dialogue for change.

Lately, I have been noticing a strange reoccurrence in my everyday life. About a month ago, a friend was driving behind me, and I noticed that one of her headlights was out. Since then, every day I notice at least a couple cars driving around with a broken headlight. I swear I had never noticed this before. What’s happening then? It can’t possibly be that all of the sudden there are more drivers out there with broken headlights. Can it? Most likely what’s happening is that all of the sudden, a personal experience has made a common occurrence more salient in my every day life. You might be wondering how this relates to teaching, so let me explain in what will be my first rant on this blog, which is also turning 2 years old this month.

Image from blog.unum.co.uk

Image from blog.unum.co.uk

I’m fed-up with teachers of ESOL who teach as a last resort and despise their job or do the minimum amount possible, photocopying old worksheets and reenacting the same lesson plans for the past X amount of years. These are the same folks that are usually complaining about everything the administration does and everything students don’t do. I wish these teachers would finally write their great novel and leave teaching for those who actually enjoy doing it. At the very least, I wish I didn’t encounter coworkers with this mentality as often as I have.

I’m fed-up with the lack of recognition and low wages most ELT teachers make around the world. I’ve heard colleagues say before, “I’m just an ESL teacher” to colleagues in other fields. Why do we belittle our work? It sure doesn’t help create a better work environment, recognition, and pay when many jobs around the world only require teachers to be “native-speakers” and/or white. But what we do matters and we’re the ones in charge of making it so. We don’t “just” teach ESOL. And if we’re in this field because we care about what we do, perhaps it’s time to start standing up for ourselves.

I’m fed-up with comments by fellow “experienced” teachers who seem to think that wanting to try something different is just a naive attitude by a less seasoned teacher. Last October, I remember mentioning to someone that I would love to implement project-based learning in my classroom to deal with what I thought was a very demotivating context in which we use different textbooks for everything we do in class. Her response was, “I remember feeling that way when I started teaching. Things change.” Can’t think of a more condescending way of talking to a colleague. I might have had a bit of an indigestion that day because I’ve been chewing on those words for a while. Experience or age is not what drives our desire to change the world around us, and I believe we start doing that by implementing small changes to our immediate environment. This fellow teacher’s comment has reinforced my desire to flow and be in a constant state of exploration. I will not let years of teaching experience make me turn into a predictable teacher, delivering worksheets and exercises from a book in lieu of spontaneous conversations and lessons based around topics which are relevant to the lives of those in my classroom.

I’m also fed-up with professors in the academia who write or speak from their “radical” pedestal and tell us all how superficial most ELT blogs are, how “the man” is exploiting us by selling us textbooks and training courses for teachers, and how we should just ditch everything, and start a name-calling contest on all the famous ELT professionals out there. How about embracing doable and small ways in which we can make big changes to the way we develop as professionals? How about focusing on ways in which we can subvert the publishing industry and use what they’ve put out there for our advantage? As much as I’d like to see this happen, not all of us can run and create teaching cooperatives and ditch our textbooks tomorrow. How can we work on a less alienating alternative?

I’m fed up with administrators and marketers not listening to teachers or conducting the necessary research before selling courses that will not deliver what has been promised.  If we all know it’s highly unlikely that students can go from knowing zero English to being ready for academic classes in 4 semesters, how did marketing get its way to sell these expectations to students and their parents? We’ve set ourselves to failure by having unrealistic goals from the get go, and then we wonder why our students and teachers are demotivated.

And finally, I’m fed-up with the lack of collaboration and collegiality in my ELT world. I know this sounds judgmental, but honestly, if you are resistant to learning and to change, perhaps teaching is not the place to be for you. How can we motivate our students to learn if we are not motivated to learn from them and make changes to our teaching approach? In my utopic world, teachers would always have a built in space to reflect and discuss what’s happening with their students, share their insights, and grow together professionally. Unfortunately, this is hard to get in face-to-face interactions at workplaces. But why? Is it just me who feels this way?

As I keep noticing all these metaphorical broken headlights each day, I want to now move to action and do something about it. Perhaps some of the drivers I see going around with broken headlights don’t know their light needs to be replaced. Maybe they know it and don’t care. Regardless, I can’t stop each one to tell them. Fortunately, in teaching, I can try a small daily action to help myself and those around me have bright lights and drive along roads that encourage learning. To be precise, in my world this means I commit to speaking my truth, to following my words, and to putting myself in uncomfortable new situations if this means my students, colleagues, and I can grow and  be part of the change and learning environment we wish to see. Sometimes noticing patterns and feeling fed-up is the first step to change. What are you fed-up with?

May 2015 be a great year of change for all of you!

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28 thoughts on “Noticing and Naming

  1. Hana Tichá on said:

    A great post, Laura. Most of your ideas here resonate with me but what really struck a chord with me was the mention of the condescending way your colleague talked to you about your idea to implement project-based learning into your teaching. Unfortunately, I’m familiar with this type of discourse too, and I find it really irritating. What I’m personally fed up with is the way some of my colleagues generalize about certain classes: “Oh, this is a terrible class; they are all so arrogant/stupid/lazy/disruptive”, etc. Not only do these teachers strengthen their own negative attitude, which is obviously totally unfair to those who are not arrogant/stupid/lazy/disruptive, but they also plant seeds of negativity into other teachers’ minds.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your metaphorical broken headlights. By the way, I always feel grateful when a fellow driver or pedestrians going by let me know that my headlights are off (I sometimes incidentally switch them off), so keep noticing and naming things.


    • Thanks for your insightful reply, Hanna! Your comment regarding the generalizations we make about certain classes ended up being my half-functioning headlight. Your comment hits home because I’ve certainly felt that way sometimes, and now that I am done with being negative about my own teaching situations. Thanks for bringing that up!

    • Right on Laura and Hana:) My least favorite is when another teacher says, “This class is just terrible! I’ve explained it to them 20 times and they still don’t get it!” In the nicest way possible, I always say, “Perhaps it’s the explanation that’s the problem and not the class? How are you doing explaining it?”

      • Thanks for bringing that up! Definitely a pet peeve of mine. I’ve definitely felt frustrated when it just seems like I can’t get across to students. It’s hard not to say “they’re terrible” when you have lots of discipline problems, so I can understand where teachers who say that are coming from, but I think we need to try to understand why students are not making progress. It’s more useful to me to think of ways to reach out to those students that have checked out than to label them as “bad students” and move on. But if you are mainly talking about students “not getting it”, yes, for sure I’d say the 1st thing would be to look at the way language is being used and presented in the classroom and why that may not be working.

  2. Lest it be thought that teachers necessarily become jaded, may I add my own perspective? I never talk about classes being ‘terrible’ now, but honestly I’m fairly sure I did sometimes several years ago when I was less experienced or less understanding, or less self-reflective. And I’ve been through cycles of wanting to try new things or feeling I’d rather rely on what I was doing already. Enthusiastic colleagues are important, though, just as enthusiastic friends are in life generally. Try to avoid or disregard the jaded, condescending ones and seek out those willing to share ideas. I’ve met condescending and jaded doctors and enthusiastic, interested ones; the same among journalists and supermarket workers (with whom I worked). I’m sure each field has people who are excited about what they are doing and others who are not.
    Anyway, good luck with your desire to implement project based classes – whether small-scale or longer, that type of class has more often than not resulted in the most rewarding, satsfying experience for students and teacher (in my experience). Thank you for your interesting post.

    • Thanks, Tim. And I agree about attitudes being similar in different fields, or wanting to stick to something tried and true after playing around with many ideas. What’s frustrating is to see colleagues who mock what we do and are only in ELT because of the travel opportunities, lack of jobs in their field, etc. I’ve witnessed conversations with people who have been teaching for a few years but don’t really care much about what they do. It’s disheartening. To be fair, I’ve also met people who don’t want to be English teachers (and would rather write their novel or be in International Relations), but do a fantastic job at it because they are professional and respect their students.

  3. Very well said. I assume one of your points is about a blog that was posted this week by an academic – if so, I had the same thoughts as you about it.

  4. paulwalsh on said:

    Hi there,

    Couldn’t agree more with your sentiments – well done for voicing them! Particularly “I’m fed-up with the lack of collaboration and collegiality in my ELT world.”

    Me too!

    It’s about time teachers got together and did something about the death-spiralling working conditions and standards in ELT.


    • Thanks, Paul! I’m a bit surprised at all the responses I’ve gotten so far on this post. It’s energizing to see that I’m not alone, but there’s also a lot to think now. Pondering on the steps to take after noticing. There are organizations that do teacher training that I really admire, like itdi.pro. I am fortunate to work at a place that provides some great financial support for professional development, but I’d like to think about realistic ways in which the working conditions in our field could improve.

  5. Gawd Laura, how I could rant! F$*#&ing unions! B*^&$h1t administration! N3g@71v# students! L@m3 and l@%y teachers! But I’ve got things to do today so I’ll try to keep it short…

    How do we subvert the published materials? I make the text supplemental by assigning it as homework. Occasionally, my students and I might spend a little time on it in class if something is relevant and good. Sometimes I take a grade on it, sometimes I don’t. I figure it’s another way for them to gain language acquisition and gives them practice if they want it. Although, I’m always really happy when I start a new job (I live the adjunct life via several colleges in NYC) and the director of the program says that there is no assigned text though. I’d love to hear what others do:)

    But Laura, in YOUR ELT world? I’m envious of your ELT world! I think you are doing amazing things and you are always collaborating;) But, yeah, I feel you on the negative nancys. Some people are such downers. Starting new jobs all the time, I’m used to being the new kid and there is always someone who comes at me like it’s my first time with chalk dust on my pants, or face. Some of these people have come around and I have a good working relationship with them – some even genial and collaborative. But working in so many places I’ve found that each has a certain culture of teaching that it cultivates. Some schools are fantastic, some schools I cringe when I think about them. There are a lot of reasons for this but the only variable I can really control is myself. I can only be a part of the teaching culture in the best way know how; listen, be positive, get my .02 in, have something else to talk about besides education (gotta have an out, right;) and, when all else fails, think about how much fun I have in my classes as whoever is railing about how this student is so disrespectful and that so stupid.

    • Wow, Patrick. Sorry I hadn’t approved or replied to your comment before, but I just read it. Not sure how I didn’t see it here!
      I would love to learn more about your experiences as an adjunct in a place like NYC. I like to subvert published materials by using the bits and pieces that I find useful, by changing the way an activity is supposed to go, and like you, by using them more as an add on to my classes. However, textbooks do come in handy in my classes since I teach 20 contact hours to the same students every week. This quarter I got new textbooks (ones that I chose and like!) and I am actually using them more, but I can’t say it’s necessarily a good thing. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It’s just that there is a lot of prep time, and I don’t get much advance notice on what my course will be the next quarter. I think not giving enough prep time is part of why we become lazy as teachers. We rush, and feel guilty about not spending enough time preparing- then we just go with the same old. I definitely don’t want to do this, but it comes at a cost. If things are to change in ELT, I think part of it will involve allowing teachers of ESOL to have time to reflect on their work, create, and share with others. It’s a real challenge for many teachers with families of several jobs, so to a degree, it’s hard to blame teachers for being burned out.
      I think my next post will need to be something along the lines of “In My Utopic ELT World…” — stay tuned! hehe. Oh, and thanks for the compliments. Hope to see you sometime again and get a chance to chat 🙂

  6. Good one! Power to you for saying all that!

  7. It’s a great post, Laura! It’s also excelent food for thought I totally sympathise with you. And Hana , I have the same feeling as you too!

  8. peadarcallaghan on said:

    Something I can definitely relate to. Thanks for putting it into words.

  9. SophieOK on said:

    Hey Laura. Loved your post. I take a slightly different perspective on teachers feeling disengaged with their profession. I believe that this is a consequence of the negative social discourses about ELT teachers that surround them. When I tell people I’m an English teacher, it usually generates a huge silence or feeling of disappointment from who I’m talking to-big conversation stopper. Most native speakers seem to think that they could do what we do easily and that our job is just a cop-out for people who didn’t become ‘real’ (primary or high school) teachers. I agree that a lot of this attitude stems from the fact that in some parts of the world you dont need any qualifications to teach English, other than being a native speaker (as you mention), but I also think that ELTs build up a self-defence mechanism to this stereotype and start rejecting their own profession. One way of doing this is to not engage with it, or to see yourself as something else (e.g. the novelist you mention) who is only teaching as a temporary means to an end.

  10. Great post, Laura!
    What I usually say is that we should be the change we want to see, no matter how hard it is or how irresistible it may be sometimes to just complain about all the difficulties we face every day.
    Loved your blog!

  11. I got so fed up of the broken headlights I got off the motorway and built my own, toll free, road.

  12. Great Post, Laura and it raised so many points, I could reply with a whole essay! After mulling it over for a while though, the thing I keep coming back to is that it takes a certain type of personality to be a good, engaged, creative teacher (of any kind) over a prolonged period and some of us just don’t have that personality. I taught EFL full-time for 7 years and I reached a point in my last job where I stood in front of a class early one morning, tired and with a headache, while my teenage students sat with their heads on the desks and I just knew I couldn’t do it anymore – I just didn’t have the energy to lift my students. All I wanted was a desk job where I could sometimes be grouchy and drink coffee and have a less productive day once in a while! So I got out and took a sideways step into ELT publishing – now I’m sitting at my desk at home, in my pyjamas and it’s a Monday morning, so I’ll faff around and sort out some emails and admin and drink coffee and then I’ll build up to a productive, creative sort of a week in my own time. I love my profession and I think I’m very engaged with it, but I just can’t do it on demand, in front of a class, day in, day out.

    I recognised that the full-time teaching lifestyle wasn’t for me and made the move, but it wasn’t easy (especially financially when I’d been trapped in the low-pay world of ELT all my working life with no capital behind me to start afresh!). I’m sure there are many teachers who kind of know the same thing, but find themselves trapped and can’t/don’t know how to/where to move. Maybe if ELT was a more ‘professionalised’ industry with proper regular appraisals for teachers, then those who shouldn’t really be teaching could be nudged and supported into different roles or other areas?

    • Hi Julie. First of all, sorry for the *very late* response, and thanks for your heartfelt comment to my post. I could not agree with you more on the need for a more “professionalized” industry with proper appraisals -and most importantly, opportunities for people to move into other areas of ELT. I think that’s key. It takes a lot to change jobs when you’ve been teaching for a while, but if you are unhappy at what you do, it does seem like the most responsible thing to do for everyone involved. On the other hand, I wish we would not be afraid to shake things up a bit more often, and involve teachers in all the curriculum changes. Can you imagine what would happen if most language institutes and preparatory programs around the world encouraged teachers to develop their own materials, and research and apply new approaches? If we could make more drastic changes to the way programs are run -involving faculty at all levels- I suspect we’d have a lot of different roles for teachers to try out other routes in the field.

      • paulwalsh on said:

        Hi Laura,

        I totally agree with your comments – though I think change has to start at the psychological, ideological level. Basically we are virtually invisible, or our everyday problems and concerns are invisible at the moment.

        This is perhaps where we should start.

  13. Hi, Laura,

    You make a lot of good points here, but rather than add my voice to them, let me instead say that you are not alone in your quest for continual self-improvement and best practices. I was personally very inspired by your presentation (on using technology in the writing classroom) at the last WAESOL, and have since passed along many times the insights I gained from you, including that when considering new tech, we teachers need not feel that we must master the new tool and implement it universally; that instead, we might engage a few students as co-learners, enabling us to give the new tech tool a try without the pressure of needing to utilize it well immediately. As simple an idea as this seems, it was revelatory to me, in that it exposed an assumption I’d been making about myself; namely, that I *did* need to master a new tool and be prepared to implement it universally before introducing it in the classroom. Anyway, all this is to say: keep up the great work. Don’t get discouraged. Your work is very valuable.


    • Hi Nicole,

      Thanks a lot for your insightful post and kind words. I’m really happy to hear that something I shared resonated with you. Your words also came at the perfect time for me, as sometimes I struggle finding my own voice. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, and that’s why I like to remind myself that doing at least a little of what we want to learn how to better is always the best option. Are you currently teaching? I’m taking a break this summer, but would love to hear about your teaching context and some of the ideas or challenges you might face 🙂

      Let’s stay in touch!


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